NT Wright and Mennonite Theologizing

InterVarsity Press

A high church Reformed Anglican bishop, NT Wright, has just written a book called Justification, which (as you can guess) is a summary of his thought on this much-debated issue within the Western Christian world.

His impetus for the book is a book published in 2007 by Dr. John Piper called The Future of Justification which probes the underpinnings of Wright’s understanding of Paul and if this is a helpful or harmful understanding.

Leaving aside the problems that Piper has elucidated (some of which Wright has not fully answered), Wright does proivde a vision of justification that – perhaps not surprisingly – is more in touch with the understanding of the 17th century Mennonite church than it is with Reformed theology. Perhaps it is a bridge between the two on this issue? Certainly, though, the doctrine of justification is not the strongest the Mennonite church has proclaimed, but it is nonetheless important and present in its confession.

What is N.T. Wright’s essential point, contra-the traditional Reformed/evangelical point of view? Because it is spread throughout the book, I will say essentially this: that the purpose of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was not merely about individual salvation (restoring “my relationship with God” and “getting to heaven”) nor was it about fulfilling the Torah for us (the “active obedience” of Christ which is “imputed” to us,  but that it was about fulfilling the promises made from way before the law was established and then transgressed. It was about fulfilling the promises made to Abraham to restore and bless the whole world and reconcile all the children of God in an eschatological way. This, therefore, makes the scope of the Jesus story much larger than a restoration of Israel from under the law, but more broadly the fulfillment of the covenant promise to Abraham to restore the whole world into the covenant. Therefore, justification is the declaration that one has been become a member of the covenant family, not an act of God which brings you into the covenant family (the traditional understanding).For Wright, the traditional view has formed by asking and answering questions in Medieval ways, not Pauline ways.

The book is in two parts: the first is “theologizing” and providing a background the objections against Wright; the second is exegesis from Galatians and Romans. Regardless of what you think of his conclusions, the writing is intelligent and clear (even if mildly scattered, making it sometimes difficult to get the core points).

Another way of putting this:

N.T. Wright: Justification is eschatological (it looks toward the future reconcilation of the Chilren of God) and ecclesiological (through Christ, it defines who is in the covenant community and who is not)

Reformed View: justification is primarily soteriological (about my salvation) and only secondarily eschatological and ecclesiological

I’m not necessarily convinced that these two positions are irreconcilable (Wright tends to articulate “imputed righteousness” in different terms, as Doug Wilson points out) and I think Wright overstates the distinctions to the point of mutual exclusivity, which I’m not sure is necessary. There’s also some underlying questions I have about his methods, relying on the contemporaneous texts of 2nd Temple Judaism, which has been criticized elsewhere though Wright responds to this as well.

However, I find it interesting that this emphasis on covenant and a broader vision looking back to Christ’s fulfillment of the promise to Abraham vs. the fulfillment of the law is distinctly Mennonite, if we take the Dordrecht Confession with any seriousness. In Article III (“Of The Restoration of Man Through the Promise of the Coming Christ”), we have:

Concerning the restoration of the first man and his posterity we confess and believe, that God, notwithstanding their fall, transgression, and sin, and their utter inability, was nevertheless not willing to cast them off entirely, or to let them be forever lost; but that He called them again to Him, comforted them, and showed them that with Him there was yet a means for their reconciliation, namely, the immaculate Lamb, the Son of God, who had been foreordained thereto before the foundation of the world, and was promised them while they were yet in Paradise, for consolation, redemption, and salvation, for themselves as well as for their posterity; yea, who through faith, had, from that time on, been given them as their own; for whom all the pious patriarchs, unto whom this promise was frequently renewed, longed and inquired, and to whom, through faith, they looked forward from afar, waiting for the fulfillment, that He by His coming, would redeem, liberate, and raise the fallen race of man from their sin, guilt; and unrighteousness.

Later in the confession, the authors speak of justification (in regrettably vague terms). However, the framework for understanding justification, for Wright, is set in similar terms to those above. Within these terms, a biblical theology of redemption includes not only the redemption of individual believers from their particular and original sin, but the restoration of a whole covenant community, gathered under Abraham, which seeks peace with God and reconciliation among those made enemies after Adam and the sins of his sons and daughters.

It’s funny how 17th century Mennonites are all of sudden the rage (albeit perhaps unknowingly) among New Testament scholars of the calibur of N.T. Wright.

This is a great book, by the way. For an even-handed series of reviews on Wright’s book, I suggest searching Doug Wilson’s blog, linked above.

Comments (5)

  1. folknotions (Post author)

    I’d appreciate any comments evaluating the helpfulness/validity of the comparison between the Mennonite confession and N.T. Wright’s view. Also, if you find this a helpful way of looking at it, an expansion of these views would be helpful as well.

    Of course, I welcome any additional comments outside of the scope those I’ve indicated in the paragraph above (though not outside to scope of the post).

  2. Remy

    i remember thinking similarly when i read Craig Carter’s ‘Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder’. esp. menno/Barth/Yoder’s strong emphasis on a partially-realised eschatology and how that relates to justification, the Church…etc. I think Wright is useful, but not very novel or radical when you think about Yoder’s ‘Politics of Jesus’ and ‘Body Politics’, where the latter articulates well the inextricable link between justification as inividual and as the basis of the (multi-ethnic and classless) new society. Wright tends to go halfway when compared to Yoder, hence his conservative views on ecclesiology and even the monarchy!

  3. Nathan Hobby

    ‘Reformed’ doesn’t seem an accurate description for Wright to me. :)

  4. folknotions (Post author)


    Perhaps he isn’t Reformed in the same way that, say, the Puritans, C.H. Spurgeon, J.I. Packer, or John Piper are Reformed, but he does hold to a number of points of doctrine that are no doubt rooted in Calvin’s perspective.

    Ben Witherington, Wesleyan Evangelical Professor of New Testament, would agree that Wright is Reformed:

    I also apply “Reformed” to Wright to distinguish him from Anglo-Catholics and Anglican liberals. Perhaps Anglican evangelical would have been most appropriate, but I think ultimately misleading given the kind of image the word “evangelical” evokes here in the States.

  5. Robert Martin

    Actually, you know, I’d take it the other direction. Mennonites are more “Reformed” than we like to think we are. We spend a lot of time saying how much we are NOT like the “Reformed” church and miss how much we are actually alike in our theology and purposes.

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